Masks — a de la Vega Mystery

Stand With Haiti

His skin was raw where the whip had kissed his broad back and shoulders.  An involuntary hiss escaped from between crooked, tightly clenched teeth as he pulled on the leather vest and buckled it snug.

“You sure you don’t want to give it another try?”  Sinnamon said.  She made no attempt to fake enthusiasm, merely lay there at the edge of the sagging, unmade bed.  One thin, bare leg dangled over the edge, toes tracing invisible circles on the worn grey carpet.

He didn’t answer.  Instead he retrieved his leather sleeves from the bag on the vanity and pulled them on one at a time.  Left sleeve first, then right, then two smooth motions to zip them to the vest.  He kept his back to her, avoided her scarlet-lipped reflection in the dusty vanity mirror.

“I mean, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” she went on, coiling dirty, dishwater blonde hair around a finger that belied her age, and showed her hardships as clearly as the wrinkles around her eyes and the track marks on the inside of her elbow.  “We get these guys flyin’ high on coke, you know, and the plumbing doesn’t always fire up the first time for them either.”

From the bag he removed the spiked gauntlets and strapped them on, flexing to make sure they were secure.  Behind him, on the bed, he heard the pathetic bleating of a lamb.

“But I don’t do refunds, so don’t even ask,” she said, a hint of defensiveness creeping into her voice.

He paused and Sinnamon grew silent, sensing a change in the air between them.  His leathers creaked when he moved to retrieve his mask from the blue canvas duffle bag.  In the claustrophobic silence, the noise was loud enough to startle her.  He pulled the mask down snug, squaring his blazing eyes with the narrow slits metal faceplate.  He buckled it securely around the neck.  As he turned to face Sinnamon again, she saw herself reflected, twisted and distorted on the shiny steel of the spiked mask.

“Tell you what.  I’ll refund you this once, but just cause I like you,” she said.  Her voice sounded small and lost in her head.  “I don’t usually do that, but really, I like you.  Okay?”

She smiled a trembling smile.  She imagined that he was smiling back at her, beneath all of the black leather and gleaming steel.  The image didn’t reassure her the way she had hoped.  But she didn’t have too long to worry about it.

When it came, the end was very fast.

*     *     *

The whole damn floor had been yellow taped by an overzealous beat cop by the time Detective de la Vega got there.  He had to wend his way through throngs of onlookers, residents, and uniformed officers taking statements on the stairs.  At the end of the gauntlet, he wasn’t surprised to see Donegal waiting on the landing just inside the police line.  He was holding two green paper cups of coffee from the all-night kiosk on the corner.

“One of these days, I’m going to introduce you to good tasting coffee,” Manuel said as he took a cup.  Donegal was from an older breed of cops.  Barely five foot eight and soft around the middle, he sported a porn star mustache that almost made him look like a police stereotype with curly, ginger colored hair.  All around, he was the best cop Manuel de la Vega knew.

“My friend, with these crap lattes running about four bucks, I can’t afford the good stuff,” Donegal said, lifting the tape for his partner to slide his long, lean frame into the hallway.

There was a chain of yellow, numbered evidence markers leading to the second door on the left.  Each one marked a red footprint, the pattern growing more distinct against the worn gray carpeting as the two detectives got closer to the apartment.  Just outside the door, de la Vega stopped and put his foot next to one of the sharper, waffle-looking prints.  Donegal made a low whistling sound.

“So you’re a size…what…eleven?”  Donegal said.

“Twelve.”  Manuel corrected him.  “So that would make this…”

“Big!” Donegal’s skill at understatement was as sharp as ever.

“Size fifteen E would be my guess,” said a voice from inside the apartment, “but you’ll get the official measurements as soon as we finish with the scene.”

Manuel looked in and saw Bob, the mouse-like crime-scene tech standing just inside the door of the apartment with his evidence kit, wondering where to go next as he surveyed the scene.  “Hey Bob, mind if I come in and take a look?”

Bob shrugged, distracted.  “Gloves and booties.  And be real careful where you step.  Slippery when wet, you know.”

Detective de la Vega suited up and offered the box of booties to Donegal who waved them away emphatically.  Two months earlier, he had smeared the only usable shoe print with a careless step and now refused to enter any crime scene until the techs were done with it.  “I’m not going to see anything they won’t show me in the reports anyway,” he said.

“It’s your call,” Manuel said, setting the box on the floor in the hallway before following Bob into the room.

He had seen a lot of crime scenes, some of them incredibly brutal.  This one made the worst of them look like summer camp crafts.  For starters, the head, torso, and one arm had essentially vanished in a red display of violence against the far wall, peppered in stark contrast with white fragments of bone.  The two legs and remaining arm were female, and relatively untouched, just not connected to each other — or to anything else for that matter.  There was a hole between this room and the apartment closest to the stairs.  It was over two feet across and ringed with drying blood and scraps of meat.

Above the hole, written in blood, was one word.  “Sinner” Just like the Kittering murder ten days ago.  But that murder, while brutal, was nothing like this.  That victim had been a vagrant recently relocated from Jersey City according to the YMCA card in his untouched wallet.  He had been found beaten to death in an alley in Karlsburg, on the other side of Highway 6, “Sinner” scrawled in blood on the old, scarred cinderblocks above the dumpster.

“It’s escalating,” Manuel said under his breath.

“You think?”  Bob said, distracted as he snapped photos of the carnage.  His sarcasm was not lost on Manuel.

“It’s like she exploded,” he said.

“Splatter pattern is inconsistent with that,” Bob said, looking up from his camera.  “But I’ll keep it in mind.”

“We have a name on the probable victim here, Brian?” he called to his partner out in the hall.

“Real name was Laurie Voss,” Donegal said, referring to his notes.  “Her working name was Sinnamon.  With an ‘S’, which shows she couldn’t spell.”

“Working name?” de la Vega said as he carefully stepped over to the outside wall where an unusual impact crater had punched through the drywall and into the concrete support pillar.

“Neighbors said she danced at this place down in the Hollows.  Turned tricks on the side, according to the lady next door.  Maybe to support a taste for drugs?”

“Maybe,” Manuel said as he leaned in to inspect the impression in the wall.  Circular, but with deeper, stab-like marks interspersed throughout.

“Make sure you run a tox screen on her for us, will you Bob?”  Donegal said.

“Yeah, this could be an overdose,” Bob said, sparing a glance over to the door, and Manuel thought he caught the tech rolling his eyes.  “Given the needle marks on the arm that he left for us, I’m pretty sure we’ll find something.  But we’ll run a full screen for you.”  He let the camera dangle from its strap and made notes to order the tests.

While Bob was making notes, Manuel reached up and touched the edge of the crater with a latex glove covered finger…

…and spun backwards into hell.

He never knew when the visions would hit him.  Maybe if he knew where they came from, which saint or devil brought these tormenting images of the past, then maybe he could control them.  But there was no leash on his third eye, and it was all he could do to hold on and try to make sense of what he was being shown.

Across his mind’s eye spun images, a ballet of blood, fast moving black leather, steel, fear, pain, redemption?

It was no man who did this, he found himself thinking.  This was the act of an animal – no, not an animal – something else, something worse.  Yet there was a disjointed flicker, an image that didn’t fit with the others, that clung to the edge of his vision as the room swirled back into the now.  He regained his focus, controlled his breathing until he could scan the room for what the vision had shown him.

There, on the floor midway into the room…twin circular smears in the blood, unlike any of the other marks in the room.  He got Bob’s attention and pointed them out to him.

“What do you think caused those marks?”  Donegal asked, leaning in from the hall to see.

“Knee marks,” Bob said without hesitation.  “He was kneeling.  See over there?” he said, pointing with his pen to a patch of smears in front and to the left of the others.  “He pushed himself up with his fingertips.  I don’t think we’ll get a usable print.  It looks like a pretty sure bet that he was wearing gloves.”

“Kneeling?”  Donegal said.  “What the hell?”

“He was praying,” de la Vega said.  Already wheels were turning in his head.  There were people he needed to talk to, calls he had to make both in an official and in an unofficial capacity.  He had to stop this before someone else died.

If nothing else, this vision had made one thing perfectly clear to Manuel.  This killer was just getting started.

*     *     *

In the low light of his concealed equipment room, Manuel de la Vega got himself ready for the long night ahead.  He started, as he always did, by pulling on his leather body suit.  After that, the gloves with the wrists snuggly laced up.  He thumbed the power switch on his banded collar, and then checked the contacts on the helmet to make sure they were clean.  As the stage-field generator came on line, he slid the molded cat head shaped helmet on and snapped the contact point tight, plugging it into the internal power cell.  He whispered a test command in Spanish into the helmet mic and saw the system readout spring up in green bars across the lower left of his visor screen.  A second vocal command started up his cycle parked in its charger across the room.

Gato Loco was ready to roll.

A full day’s worth of formal detective work had revealed only a few solid theories.  The second murder had been pre-meditated.  That accounted for the presence of a specialized weapon that the lab techs still couldn’t identify.  The first murder had the look of a convenience killing, maybe a chance encounter that flipped some kind of mental switch in the killer.  Donegal, who had grown up in the city, had been able to uncover that both victims had lived in the Karlsburg neighborhood thirteen to fifteen years ago.  And while that might have been a coincidence, at this point it was the only thing linking the two people.  That and the blood scrawled calling card, Manuel reminded himself.

An afternoon of canvassing the area where both victims had lived turned up little.  Evan Kittering had run a Christian youth day camp at an area elementary school during the summer for a few years, but had left suddenly fifteen years ago.  A child molestation charge in New Jersey two years later put him behind bars until last year.  The school had nothing to say about his record there.  While he had used the space, he had not been employed by the district, and as such, had generated no file.

Laurie had baby sat in the neighborhood when she was going to Tremaine High School over a decade ago, but no one there seemed to remember her.  Her foster parents had moved out of state shortly after she ran away from home at the age of sixteen.

Most of the residents of this relatively quiet part of the neighborhood had moved there when the economy had taken an upturn a few years back, but there were still some who had lived in this stretch of old houses, ethnic shops, and warehouses through the lean years.  But even among those interviewed, no one remembered anything that was of use to the department.

It was only the gruesome nature of the double homicide that kept the department from turning it over to the tip line and moving on to other cases.  A vagrant and a junkie stripper did not warrant a task force.  As it ended up, only Donegal and de la Vega had been assigned, and officially at least, they were at a dead end.  Even the giant sized boots, army issue, had gotten them nowhere.

But Gato Loco began where the police ended.  He and Donegal had spoken with a woman earlier who knew more than she let on.  It might have been something as subtle as the look in her eyes when she heard the victim’s names, or maybe it was the fervor in her voice when she said that God would punish the sinner responsible for the crime.  But with nothing more than a hunch  and an out of context comment to go on, a search warrant was out of the question.

The sinner angle had not been released to the press, but she had referred to the killer as a sinner.  And while murder was a certainly a sin, Manuel was more accustomed to hearing it referred to as a crime.  Their brief conversation had been filled with comments of the fire and brimstone variety.  If she hadn’t been a frail woman in her fifties, Loretta Kane would have been their prime suspect.

There were only a handful of pictures on display when he and Donegal had talked to her in the front parlor.  Loretta and her husband on their wedding day over thirty years ago, for instance, and Loretta and her husband at Coney Island sometime in the late seventies by the look of the lapels.  All the photographs were the same:  the lovely couple, her beaming, him scowling, all frozen in the unforgiving amber of the late seventies.

Donegal had noticed the pictures too, and had asked when her husband would be home.  She had icily replied that she was expecting him home any minute as he had only gone out for cigarettes.  “Of course, that was in 1979, so he must be having trouble finding parking.”

Like that, the interview had been over.

And they were no closer to catching a killer.

“Damn, but that runaway husband of Loretta Kane’s was a big guy,” Donegal said, as if deciding then and there to find out what had happened to the happy groom.

Manuel de la Vega clocked out, called a friend and then put on the leather.

As the clock neared eleven, Gato Loco found himself perched on the roof of a bakery three blocks from the school Kittering had operated out of and two blocks from the Kane household.  The moon’s waning face was hidden behind fat clouds that promised rain before sunrise, and beneath, the streets were empty but for derelicts and rats attracted by dumpsters brimming with botched baked goods.

His patience was rewarded as he noticed dust swirling around his feet.  No, not dust he reminded himself.  Ash.  He shuddered despite himself, knowing that this ash had once been, and in many ways still was, a person.  “Hello, Simon,” he said, his voice as level as he could make it.

“Welcome to my territory, detective,” rang the hollow echo of a voice as Mister Grey coalesced out of the ash.  “I understand that you are looking for information?”

“And your blessing,” Gato Loco said.  “West of Highway 6 is your turf.  I don’t want to step on any toes.”

“You are always welcome here.  And it is not as if I have toes to be stepped on,” the figure said, holding his Claude Rains as the Invisible-Man look against the sudden wind blowing up from the river.  Despite his soft English accent and mild laugh, the long deceased Simon Floyd was still the most unsettling person Simon knew.  “I appreciate your courtesy nonetheless.  I would look into the matter myself, but we both know that I am no detective.”

“I’ve worked with worse.”

“You flatter me.  You gave me three names:  Laurie Voss, Evan Kittering, and Loretta Kane, am I right?”

Gato Loco whispered on the record function in his helmet and saw the red dot of light in the bottom right of his visor.  He kept his voice neutral.  “It would be helpful.”

“Laurie had a troubled childhood.  Not a big surprise for you considering where she ended up.  Problems at school and a succession of foster homes since her parents died in a car crash when she was four, her death had a tragic but inevitable trajectory.  Kittering was different.  One of my contacts was able to confirm that he left when several child abuse accusations came to light.  He left before they could fire him or press charges.  He had been living at a shelter down near the tracks in Quayside for about a month now.”

“Nothing too surprising.  We already have most of the background on the victims.  What about Loretta Kane?”

Mister Grey raised the brim of his hat to the hidden moon and an amused tone came into his decentralized voice.  “Ah, there is where our drama gets interesting.  My sources have nothing on her, other than she has lived in the same house since time immemorial.  Her husband really did vanish in 1979, but it is likely he skipped town since my sources have no trace of him.  It is interesting that you mention her.”

“Interesting how?”

“Well, she might just be a little old head case, but her son…”

“She has a son?” Gato Loco said, losing the cool, disaffected air he had tried so hard to maintain.

“Jubal Kane.  He would be in late twenties by now.  A mean, vicious little hooligan, if you catch my drift.  No friends, no activities, didn’t speak to anyone unless he was beating them up and taking what he wanted from them.  He was a classic predator.  The whole neighborhood breathed a little easier when he was gone.”

A creeping suspicion took a hold of him and there was no way out but to voice it.  “And where did he go?”

“He enlisted in the Army, of course.  Where else do his kind end up?  Its either Army or prison,” Mister Grey said.  “I hope this is of some use to you.  Now if you don’t mind, I do have other appointments to keep.  You know how it is.”

“Yes, of course,” Gato Loco said.  “Thank you.”

Mister Grey started drifting away then paused, turning back to his friend.  “Katherine is doing well, by the way.”

Manuel felt his heart stop for a second.  “That’s good.  Tell her I said hello.”

“I always do, even when you don’t actually say it yourself,” he said, then waited for a second.  “You know, detective, it would not hurt for you to tell her hello yourself sometime.  We are in the book.”

“I’ll remember that,” Gato Loco said, but when he turned, no one was there.  Not even a cloud of ash.

*     *     *

Breaking into the school had been easier than expected.  Within ten minutes of leaving the rooftop, Gato Loco had switched on the low-light filter on his visor and was pouring over records in the principal’s office.  The district required schools to maintain discipline records for fifteen years, and Jubal Kane had left school when he was a sophomore eleven years ago.  From his record, it appeared he had spent his eighteenth birthday in a juvenile detention facility in Quayside, having been expelled and charged for putting a fellow student in the hospital with a broken arm when he was sixteen.

Most of the offences in the file were the basic loner / thuggish behavior.  Reading the high school counselor’s report, Gato Loco found it a surprise that Tremaine High School hadn’t had the kind of explosive episode that made Columbine High in Colorado so notorious only a few years later.

He voice activated the cell phone built into his helmet and called Donegal, who he know would be awake and at work.  True to his instincts, the phone was picked up before the second ring had finished sounding.

“It’s Manuel,” Gato Loco said, making his voice sound tired.  “This might be nothing, but you remember the Kane woman we talked to this afternoon?”

Donegal didn’t answer right away, as if he was looking around the sea of desks to find anyone listening in.  “Funny you should mention her,” he said, his tone implying that there was nothing funny about it.  “I just got a lead on her old man.”

Manuel couldn’t hide the surprise in his voice.  “I thought he was long gone!”

“He was,” Donegal said, “until his company transferred him here from Seattle earlier this year.  He works for Starcom Industries.  I’m trying to track down a good address so I can ask him about his whereabouts last night.”

“While you’re at it, ask him about his son,” Manuel said.

The line went silent.  It was Donegal’s turn to be surprised.  Finally, he answered in a tense whisper, “What son?”

“His name is Jubal Kane.  A friend of mine went to school with him over in Karlsburg,” Manuel said.  “We were chatting over drinks and when I found out she was from that neighborhood I asked her about the Kane family.”

“You think there’s anything to it?”  Donegal sucked on his teeth, deep in thought.

“Maybe.  The kid got in a lot of fights.  Run his name and see if he has a record.  My friend thinks Jubal went into the army, but he might be out now.  Might be that he got picked up for something on the outside.”

“I’ll look into it.  In the meantime, I’m not giving up on the father.  I’ll ring you at home if I get something.”

And then he was gone and Gato Loco was left alone in the dark again.  If Mr. Kane was back in Cobalt City after twenty-five years, would he bother to look up Loretta?  “It’s worth a shot,” he said to himself, quietly making his way back out past the sleeping security guard.

*     *     *

The Kane house was a narrow, grey clapboard two-story with barely enough room between it and the homes on either side for a rat to squeeze through.  White linen curtains covered the windows and looked like they never opened, no matter how nice and sunny the day.  The covered porch sported a metal glider bench painted fire-engine red.  A little, square lawn with a four foot high chain link fence separated it from the curb, while in the back, a long back lawn and vegetable garden was fenced in by more chain link.  It looked like any other house on the block.

But it wasn’t like any other house.  It never really had been.

In the stark light provided by the bare, swinging overhead bulb, Jubal read over the address again and again.  The wrinkled scratch pad read 1429 Hope in confident block letters.  That was here in Karlsburg, just north of where he was now.  He could get there on foot in twenty minutes.

He thought it over, brushing flies away from his bologna sandwich with one leather gauntleted hand.  He didn’t know if the flies had been attracted to the sandwich or to the smell of his leathers.  Probably the leather, he thought dimly as he bit, chewed, and swallowed.  He hadn’t changed out of them since dealing with…with her.  They were starting to get a little ripe.

He reveled in the stench.

It was the stench of retribution.

He picked up the wedding photo again.  She looked so happy.  The father type thing in the picture had looked sad, scared perhaps.  He looked nothing now.  Since bringing the photo downstairs with the crumpled address and taking it out of the frame, the face had been rubbed off by his strong fingertips in blood stained leather.  Now the picture was so thin in that one spot that Jubal could almost see through it.

He held the back of the picture up to his face and tried to look through the hole he had rubbed.  He stared and squinted at the light bulb through the thin paper.  He imagined that it was him instead of the father type thing in the picture.  He imagined that he made his mama smile like that.

An animal-like grunting caught his ear and he froze, eyes searching frantically for the source of the sound, but it was gone as soon as he noticed it.  The sound had been close.  Maybe he had made the noise himself and not noticed.  He knew he was doing a lot of things he didn’t have control over.  Maybe mama was right about me all along, he found himself thinking.

The photo was traded out for the address again.  He took another few bites of bologna and mustard.  1429 Hope.  He would have to be careful.  Even at this time of night, even with all his practice at not being seen, someone could catch him moving through the streets.  It would require explanations.  He was no good at explaining things.  It made his stutter come back.  He had worked too long to get rid of the stutter to have it come back now.  Not now.  Not when he was so close.

He pulled the mask back on and lined up the eye holes.  He took a deep breath.


He left the way he always did, through the cellar door.  Focused as he was on not being seen, he did not see the light go on upstairs in his mama’s room.  Nor did he see Gato Loco pass by a block away, headed in the opposite direction.

*     *     *

Gato Loco was afraid that he’d have to pick the back door lock until he saw the open cellar.  He looked again at the light in the upstairs window and saw a silhouette that could only be Loretta against the white curtains.  He checked the time display on the inside of his visor.  At half past one in the morning, it was a late night for most people.  But Loretta Kane was up and around.  How interesting.

With cat-like stealth, he crept down the cellar stairs into the darkness.  The low-light filters switched on again.  The cellar was smaller than the foundation of the house would suggest.  Jars of preserves and canned food lined the tall, built in shelves along the wall, and a big duffle bag partially filled with clothes propped open a door into an under stairs closet.  Next to the closet door was a dirty Styrofoam cooler with the crust of a sandwich, a photograph, and a scrap of paper sitting on top of it.  Carefully swinging open the closet door showed it to be filled with what could only be described as a nest of sour smelling blankets.

Gato Loco found the dangling light cord and tugged it on, blinking as the filter compensated for the sudden burst of light.  His vision quickly normalized and he noticed something else on the cooler.  What he had at first taken to be dirt in the dark of the cellar had the distinct reddish brown of dried blood flakes.  He pulled a small baggie out of an internal pocket, scooped and then labeled the evidence.  He suspected it would match Laurie Voss’s blood.  A quick test at his home lab would most likely confirm it, as would the tests the local crime scene techs would run when they got a sample.  Even if the killer managed to clean up before then, there should still be enough on the murder weapon itself to get a conviction.

Then his eye settled on the photo and the address written on the scrap of paper.  A chill went through his blood.  “Quatro,” he whispered into his helmet for the second time that night.

On the third ring, Donegal picked up.  “I’m a busy man de la Vega,” he said, sounding as tired as Manuel felt.  “This better not be more busy work to annoy me.”

“So nothing on Jubal Kane I take it?” he said.

“He has a juvie record which is of course a clean slate once he hit eighteen, but that’s it.  Military as soon as he was old enough and no adult record.  Your guy is clean.”

“Sorry to waste your time.  Did you get an address on the missing husband yet?”

“Oh yeah!”  Donegal said.  “You’ll never believe this, but guess who just called in to tell us where to find him.”

“Loretta Kane?”  Manuel said.

“Lucky guess.  All this time she doesn’t know where he is, but these killings start and guess what?  He stops by and drops off his address with her.”

“Where is he living?”  Manuel said as he picked up the crumpled address, almost wishing he’d get hit with a vision to tell him that his imagination was running wild.  But as Donegal confirmed his worst fears, there was no vision to contradict him.  Gato Loco put the address back down after having his visor take a digital picture of it and the rest of the scene.

“So are you heading over there to talk to him now or do you want to wait until civilized hours so I can join you?”  Manuel said, already knowing the answer.  Brian Donegal was a lot of things.  A procrastinator was not one of them.

“You caught me on the way out the door, partner.  Catch you next time.”

“Do me a favor and take a couple of black and whites with you.”

On the other end of the phone, Donegal sounded hurt.  “You don’t trust me to bring in a suspect on my own?”

“You saw the crime scene.  If this is our guy, it wouldn’t hurt to have a few officers at your back,” Manuel said as he turned out the light.

“You might have a point,” Donegal said.  “You sure you don’t want to call your date a cab and watch me work my magic?”

“I’m not ready to give up on the Jubal angle yet.  Might involve some undercover work, if you know what I mean.  But let me know what you find,” he said, racing to get there first.

Manuel was pretty sure that he could beat Donegal there because he had a secret weapon.  Back in Mexico City, before he became a cop, he used to street race motorcycles, and his current bike was the product of years of research and development.  It featured a top speed of 265 mph on a straight away and zero to sixty in under three seconds.  It was so responsive that it was like the wheels read your thoughts.  It was all electric, with a day’s charge giving it over eight hours at full performance.  Best yet, at least as far as Gato Loco was concerned, it ran as silent as a whisper and gave off no heat emissions, making it difficult to track.  He called it Shadow.

To ride Shadow to its full potential, Manuel had been forced to develop protective gear that incorporated reflex enhancing circuitry.  He had wanted to street race cycles since the first time he rode on the back of his cousin’s bike through the crowded streets of Mexico City.  Being a hero?  Like so many things in life, that had been an accident.

But now that he lived in Cobalt City and worked as a police detective, the hero thing came as natural as breathing.  And while it ruined any chance of him having a normal life, he found that there were trade offs.

Even with all the technology available at his fingertips, he still didn’t get there fast enough.  As he brought Shadow to a stop alongside the pickup in the driveway, Gato Loco noticed that the door to the house was open.  Not just open.  The door handle was just gone, as though a section of door had been blasted through.  He remembered the hole in the wall back at Laurie’s apartment.  Jubal was here, no doubt about it.

“911,” he whispered then waited for an operator to answer as he headed quickly but quietly towards the open door.

“911 emergency…” the woman on the other end began.

“This is Gato Loco.  You know who I am.  There is a home invasion in progress at 1429 Hope in Karlsburg.  You need to dispatch an ambulance now,” he said.  “1429 Hope,” then he hung up.

There was nothing to see through the door, just a darkened living room, with light spilling from down a hallway to the left.  The shouts were coming from that direction.

“What the hell are you?” followed by the smash of wooden furniture being destroyed.

Gato Loco bounded into the house, making it to the hallway in one acrobatic roll.  Just inside the bedroom door at the end of short, bare hallway, a broad shouldered man was silhouetted, facing away from him.  Just beyond the figure that Manuel figured had to be Jubal Kane was a queen sized bed, its occupant obscured behind the leather covered torso of his attacker.

Then, gunshots.  Three of them.

Two of the bullets found their target, staggering Jubal back half a step, while the third zipped past his ribs and raced down the hall towards Gato Loco.  The bullet, which Gato Loco casually observed to be around .38 caliber, hit the several hundred layers of molecule thin force field provided by his stage-field generator.  Sapped of kinetic energy with half an inch to spare, the spent slug fell harmlessly to the ground.

The bullets that hit Jubal didn’t seem to slow him down either, as he lunged towards the bed swinging with spiked fists caked with dried blood and hair.

Moving as quickly as his enhanced reflexes would let him, Gato Loco raced for the bedroom, making it to the door in two quick leaps.  The fist of death was already on its way down as he pounced upon Jubal, driving his shoulder into the back of the assailant’s ribs.  The force was enough to spoil Jubal’s aim but not knock him down.  The punch which was meant for his father’s heart clipped his left arm instead, shattering the bones in his upper arm completely, and taking with it a chunk of flesh and flannel pajama shirt.

Jubal spun on his feet to face the new threat over the corner of his father’s bed.  Gato Loco took a few guick steps to the left, away from the bed.  He was relieved to see that Jubal’s attention was locked on him and not on the father who was, from the look of things, going to be sliding into shock any minute.  He hoped that the ambulance would get here soon.

They stood there for a long time, sizing each other up.  They were closely matched in size and reach, despite Jubal’s big feet.  Jubal also had an easy fifty pounds on Gato Loco, all of it muscle.  They circled each other, gore encrusted leather and steel gloves and headpiece, and leather laced with miracles of science and a cycle helmet molded like a yowling cat’s head.  Old world gladiator and new world vigilante.  Instinct and impulse facing off against reason and knowledge.  Polarities in a dance of death.

“It doesn’t have to be this way, Jubal,” Gato Loco said, loud and evenly.

Jubal Kane was faster than his size suggested, even with two bullets in him.  Faith in his hardware told Manuel that his force field could handle the blow, but after seeing the carnage those fists had caused, a certain degree of instinctual caution took hold.  When the bladed gauntlets powered through the invisible force fields, he had already started twisting out of the way.  The blow, which should have punched a lung out through his back, instead grazed off his ribs, laying them open, stinging but unbroken.

The field integrity meter on the visor was still in the green, but Manuel knew that wouldn’t last if another few punches landed.  He rolled to his side, lashing out mid-roll to kick Jubal hard in the side of the knee.

The killer staggered but didn’t go down.  He didn’t even grunt in pain.  For the first time since the fight started, Gato Loco began to consider that he might not win.

“Jubal?” the father said, drawing his son’s attention.  Gato Loco cursed silently as his opponent shifted focus back to the bed.  “Jubal, I didn’t know about you until they did a security clearance check on me for my job.  Your mother never told me about you.”

“Liar!” Jubal bellowed, a lifetime or rage focused to laser intensity, “You abandoned us!”

His fists rained down upon the bed like twin engines of destruction, snapping it in half.  Luck, or Jubal’s blind rage had caused him miss his father by mere inches, who had curled up in a fetal position at the head of the bed, eyes half-closed.

Gato Loco heard the squeal of tires out front and saw the flash of police lights on the closed blinds.  Shit, he thought.  Donegal and a raging killer who doesn’t slow down when he gets shot.  This night just keeps on getting better.

“I left your mother before she told me she was pregnant,” the father pleaded.  “I had to get away.  I never would have left a child with her.  I never would have left you if I had known.  Your mother…there’s something not right with her!”

Shut up shut up shut up! Gato Loco screamed in his head as he looked for another opening.  Jubal wound up for another swing.  There, the wooden floor with the small rug at the side of the bed, Jubal with one foot on, one foot off.  With all his strength, Gato Loco lashed out with both feet into the ankle pinning down the rug.  The foot gave way and Jubal fell, the killing blow far wild of the mark, touching nothing but air.

“Police!” came a shout from the doorway, “Put your hands where I can see them!”  Gato Loco didn’t have to look up to know that it was Donegal.

With a roar, Jubal Kane found his feet again and lunged for the doorway.  Donegal put one bullet into him while another pinged off the spiked steel visor.  Neither had any effect.  In a heartbeat, the killer was gone, leaving the shaking detective in the doorway, bleeding from a minor scratch on his forearm.

Donegal blinked in surprise, then lowered the gun to point half heartedly at Gato Loco.  “He could have killed me, couldn’t he?” he asked, incredulous.

“Yes.  Without a doubt,” he said, trusting the voice filter in his helmet to mask his identity.

“Then why didn’t he?”

“I’m not sure.”

Neither man moved, Gato Loco with his hands at his side, Donegal with the wavering gun.  Cops on the street had been hearing about this Gato Loco character for months.  Most people wrote him off as an urban legend, the avenging biker with the head of a cat.  In a city full of brightly garbed super heroes, there were stranger stories, Donegal knew that.  But he’d never been so close to one before.  He licked his lips nervously.  “He’s getting away,” he said, putting his gun back in its holster.

“No he isn’t,” Gato Loco said.  He looked over at Jubal’s father, eyes closed and breathing shallow.  With luck, the ambulance would get here in time to save his life, but the arm would most likely be a total loss.  “I know where he’s going.”

“Where’s that?”  Donegal said as Gato Loco went to the window.

Outside there were shouts of alarm as Jubal went over the back fence and disappeared into the night.

Manuel looked over at his partner.  He wished for just a moment that he could share his secrets, but knew that he could never put Donegal in that kind of danger.  “He’s going home.”

With a surprising swiftness despite his wounded side, Manuel leapt from the window and bounded over the heads of the stunned uniformed cops out front.  Shadow was already started and anxious to go when he landed on the seat.  He sliced out into the suburban streets, into an alley, and was gone.

*     *     *

Loretta Kane sat in a hard, high backed chair in the dark kitchen and waited for the tell-tale creak of the cellar stairs.  Gato Loco, who had come in through an upstairs window was able to get to the far side of the fridge near the house breaker box without her ever hearing him.  Once he noticed that the house was completely dark, Gato Loco decided to keep the advantage his low-light visor granted him.  He silently switched off the breaker while Loretta sat, her back to him, less than ten feet away.

“Jubal is on his way home,” he said suddenly, lacing his voice with chilly menace.  He had to give the old lady credit.  She barely jumped and didn’t bother to turn around.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, her voice practically singing with nervous tension.

“I’m talking about your son,” he said.  “Now would be a good time to tell me what you did to make him so angry.”

Her back, already rigid, stiffened even more.  “I didn’t do anything,” she said.  “Jubal always had the devil in him.  I did everything I could to keep him free from sin, but sin was just drawn to him.  It was in his blood.  His father’s blood.”

The prayer at the Voss killing, “Sinner” painted in blood.  Manuel had thought it referred to the victims, but he questioned that reasoning now.  The victims were not the only sinners.  Jubal Kane was one as well.  Whether or not it had always been true, with a mother like this, he had likely lived with that label all his life.

“When he told me what happened to him at the camp, I made sure he was punished, but it didn’t help,” she said.

“He was only a child,” Gato Loco began.

“And a child isn’t responsible for his own actions?  Is that what you’re going to say?” she said.  “Children have to be responsible for their sins.  He led a good man into temptation.”

Gato Loco put the pieces together.  “Evan Kittering.”

She acknowledged with a nod of her head.  “To have a child of my own flesh try to destroy a man of God like that…I was beside myself with grief.  I had taught Jubal better than that.”

Gato Loco found himself feeling sick.  His fist clenched and unclenched at his side.  “And Laurie Voss?”


“Laurie Voss.  She used to babysit around the neighborhood,” he reminded her.  “Jubal would have been ten or twelve then.”

Loretta nodded again, the memory came back to her and appeared to leave a bitter taste.  “Yes, the baby sitter.  He came crying to me, told me all about it.  The congress of the flesh.”

“And you punished Jubal for what she did to him?” he said.

“It takes two to sin,” she said.  “But what would you know about sin, breaking into a righteous woman’s house in the dead of night?”

Manuel heard a creak on the cellar stairs, but caught up in memories as Loretta was, he wasn’t sure that she had noticed the sound of approach.

“He was a bad seed.  A demon’s child,” she said.  “Should have been smothered in the crib.  He got so used to being put in the punishment closet that he started sleeping there, eating there.  Sometimes weeks would go by without me even seeing the little bastard.”

“Mama?” came the cracking voice from the top of the cellar stairs.  Gato Loco saw Jubal reach for the light switch just inside the door and flip it up and down to no effect.  He sounded lost and confused.  “Mama

“You were always a sinner, Jubal,” she said, her voice cold.  “That’s why your father left us.”

Gato Loco didn’t move.  Jubal didn’t appear to know he was there, and for now, that was for the best.

“He said he didn’t know about me, mama,” he said, confused.

“Are you going to believe him?  Do you trust the man who left us or the mama who loves you?” she cooed.  There was no love in her voice, but Manuel doubted that Jubal could tell the difference.  He was pretty sure that Jubal Kane had never heard the voice of someone who loved him.

With the low light filters, he was able to see blood drip to the weathered linoleum of the kitchen floor.  So the bullets didn’t just bounce off.  He found the knowledge reassuring.

“I don’t know, mama,” Jubal said.  He leaned on the door frame for support.

“Does mama have to cleanse you again?” she said, her voice a show of the hardships she had to endure with her problem child.

“Not the whip again,” he said, sinking to his knees.  He had lost a lot of blood between here and his father’s house.  “Please not the whip again.  I promise I’ll be good.”

Loretta Kane stood and turned, putting a hand on the stinking leather head of her son.  The fight was gone from him.  She smiled a thin, hard smile that didn’t reach her eyes as she looked into the darkness from which Gato Loco watched.

The monster.

The monster and her son.

Gato Loco triggered the stage-field generator controls with a sub-audible command, and fired the tiny force fields out from his suit in a wide angle burst.  The sequenced but almost imperceptible impacts hit both members of the Kane family, rattled around in their ear canals, and messed with their equilibrium.  Mother and son fell suddenly into unconsciousness.  The same trick would have killed the father earlier, injured as he was, but mother and son would both live.

It was better than she deserved, he thought as he walked out the back door to Shadow parked in the alley.  He was blocks away before Donegal and a full SWAT team broke down the front door with a battering ram.  Donegal found a mini-disk with a yowling cat head etched on the top.  When he examined it back at the station, he would find a recording of the entire kitchen conversation burned onto it.

The evidence, while damning, probably wouldn’t get a conviction for Loretta Kane.  At best, she was looking at a charge for assaulting her son, but he would never press charges against his mama.  No, she was going to walk away from the whole unpleasant affair a free woman, never doubting that she had done right by her boy.

The system didn’t always work.

But it was all they had.

It was what separated them from the monsters.

Crossing highway 6 on his way home, Manuel told his cell to dial a number he had programmed in months ago but rarely used.  After several rings, a woman answered sleepily.  “Manuel?” she said.  “You do know that it’s almost four in the morning, don’t you?”

“I know it’s early…” he said.

“Or late,” she said, sounding like she was waking up.

“I was wondering if you’d like to get some coffee.”

There was silence on the other end as she thought it over.  “There’s an all night kiosk across from the park, three blocks north of the Marco Polo.  You know where it is?”

Manuel remembered the lamentable coffee in the green to-go cups from earlier.  “The Cup O’Chino.  I’ve been by there, yes.”

“I can be there in twenty minutes, less if you want to do this in masks.”  From the sounds on the other end of the line, she was already up and moving.  “Is this work related?  The case Simon told me about, perhaps?”

“Just wrapped that up.  But I wouldn’t mind having someone to talk to right about now.  Let’s do this with masks off, and make it half an hour.  I need to dress a wound and get changed.”

“Half an hour,” she said.

“I’ll be there,” he said.  “And next time you see Simon, thank him for me.”

“So his advice on the case paid off?”

“Among other things,” he said.  He hung up and headed for home to dress his wound and change.  Not all challenges were best handled by heroes.

4 thoughts on “Masks — a de la Vega Mystery

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